Category Archives: Non fiction

The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, Julie Szego

9780987381149I applaud Julie Szego for grabbing this story and shaking it until its bones rattled. I applaud her for dealing with the harsh, grating issues that lie beneath the facade of the shocking plot surrounding the ‘tainted trial of Farah Jama’ – a black Ethiopian man convicted on the flimsiest of evidence for a crime that he did not commit against a white woman … all in a country as democratic and beautiful as Australia.

Szego explores the crime, the crime scene and the various characters involved, from a range of different and compelling angles. She clearly and competently conveys the complexity of this case – the victim, the accused and his traditional, Ethiopian family, and the honour and pride of the Ethiopian community. In layers, Szego unwraps all of these elements, drawing readers into the heart of questions about morality, truth, justice and race relations in Australia.

I loved how this story unfolded. It is part investigative journalism and part social commentary with a touch of thrilling mystery. The way that Szego crosses the boundaries of these genres makes this a fascinating book to read. This book teaches us about humanity, about prejudice, about assumptions and presumptions and about the fallibity of our legal system. Most importantly, it forces us to appreciate the value of asking questions and investigating until we are certain that we have come to understand the truth.

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The Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, Hella Winston

51n2j79drXL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I love a book with a good subheading and this one certainly didn’t disappoint – “The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels”. It’s a tantalising prospect … that there are rebels in this sect who retain their Hasidic identity but in the privacy of their homes or behind closed doors, they engage in activities which would certainly have them excommunicated.

I quite like the way this book was structured; a series of interviews cobbled together with the invested narrator guiding the drama, involved in its outcome, hovering always on the edge. We came to understand these ‘rebels’ and to watch them voyeuristically from a distance, feel their distress but never quite ‘know’ them … if that makes sense. I think this is a consequence of Winston’s style – the book started off as a doctoral thesis and then evolved into this act of expressive witnessing.

What Winston does extremely well in this book is provide us with these varied insights into the challenges of living in a strictly limited and perhaps limiting society where one so desperately wants to belong but can’t fit into the mould. Winston’s characters are all tortured and tormented by this struggle and there is a constant sadness that underlies their journeys. I quite like the empathy that Winston shows for these individuals that she meets, despite the fact that she comes from such a different background to them and that she really can’t appreciate most of the obstacles that they are facing. I think that this lends the book an element of honesty which seals it as a valuable book to read for anyone interested in Jewish identity, Jewish culture or Jewish society.

It’s certainly not the best book that I have read on this topic, although perhaps I am grossly influenced by having just read Joseph Berger’s stellar tome called The Pious Ones. But I am glad that I read it and it has contributed enormously to my perception of Hasidic Jews and the way that they live.

The Power of Half, Kevin Salwen and Hannah Salwen

I think I can safely say that this is a life changing kind of book. The kind that really sticks in your brain and makes you think and then think again and then reconsider every aspect of your little life and try to realign your actions and reactions with the new sense of reality that you suddenly have.

This book is not a literary masterpiece. It cannot compare with Dickens or Woolf or Twain or Steinbeck. What it is, is an inspirational revelation, a glimpse into the true power of one, the intense possibility that one individual can indeed change the world.

I loved the structure of this book. Kevin, the father, is the main author. The book is narrated from his perspective and is filled with his insights into the world and indeed into his family and their journey. He is an ex-journalist and the story is beautifully told and littered with quotes from the inspirational masters. Kevin’s role in this story is really as a back-seat driver, or an observer. The adventures are in fact triggered and driven by Kevin’s daughter, Hannah, and she is the co-author of this book. In fact, many of the chapters feature Hannah’s experiences or insights as a separate section, clearly aimed at the younger readers or for parents to gain some insights into what their children might be thinking or what might trigger their interest. The fact that the book is narrated from these two different perspectives add to the depth of the reading experience and makes it a wonderful, rounded insight into this family’s experiences throughout this journey.

The essence of the is story is found in Kevin’s realisation that their lives are governed by the ‘New Normal’.

“Joan and I simply called it ‘the treadmill’. We created a lifestyle; then, just to keep up, we had to stay in motion. And like the automated treadmill, it had a builtin mechanism to keep it going. We’d never dreamed of going from power windows back to hand-cranked ones or leather seats to cloth. In fact, I couldn’t remember any time we had done that in any facet of our lives – cars, houses, electronics, or musical instruments. Better, nicer, more became the New Normal.”

It is something that most of us can relate to – the underlying pressure to keep up with the Joneses, those neighbours of our own imagining. For the Salwen Family it is the struggle to get out of this trap that distinguishes them from other families. And, the essence of the success of their endeavours is that they decide not to be immobilised by the enormity and vastness of the problems facing the world and by their inability to make a huge difference to a large number of people. Rather, they are empowered by the fact that everything that they do for others helps. They follow the philosophy of Edmund Burke: ‘Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.’ As Salwen narrates in this book:

“There are 6 Billions people in this world, and you are one person. It’s easy to think, ‘How much of a difference can I really make?’ The short answer is, a lot. I love the quote from Marian Wright Edelman, the children’s rights advocate: ‘We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.'”

The way that this family goes about making change is by empowering their children – “If you want children to keep their feet on the ground, put some responsibility on their shoulders.” In fact, they make their children equal partners in all the decisions that they make from selling their house and giving away half of its value to where and who they give the money to and how it is used. The key to their success is the involvement of the whole family.

The family’s philosophy is summarised by a quote from Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., explaining how he wanted to be remembered:

“‘Every now and then I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize. Tell them not to mention that i have three or four hundred other awards. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody … Say that I was a drum major for justice … for peace … for righteousness … I just want to leave a committed life behind.'”

The value of the journey that the Salwen family experience cannot be quantified. It is, indeed, priceless:

“To put it in a literary context, we had come of age. We had coalesced as a family, brought together by a mission that really mattere. Maybe it was a bit premature to claim victory, but sitting there at the dinner table in Accra, Ghana, I believed we had found our family legend. We knew what we wanted to stand for.”

To learn more about this incredibly inspiring family, visit their website.

A Thousand Sisters: My Journey into The Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman

Off the bat I have to state that Lisa Shannon has accomplished something very heroic in her life and she should be commended for her strength of spirit and her courage in standing up for a cause in which she believed and for trying to be the voice for so many who remain unheard.

This is a difficult book to discuss. On one hand it raises the awareness of the plight of women in the Congo and indeed of the overall horror of the situation there for those who suffer it daily. In this vein it is a good book because it sets out to inform and I think that it does so quite competently. I loved the fact that Shannon interspersed her photographs with the various threads of narrative. This made it all very real and added an artistic quality to a text that would (for many reasons) have been quite difficult to read. I was also very moved by the memorial wall which the author has included at the end of the book and in some ways, I think this is perhaps the very strength of Shannon’s vision and the power of her commitment to these women and their stories.

Where I found this book challenging was that at times I couldn’t help but feel that Shannon was talking for these women, instead of allowing them to speak for themselves. I am not sure how she could have done things in any other way, but I there were many moments where I found myself uncomfortable in her white, western, privileged shoes as she tried to coax various stories out of the many women she interviewed. The way she was steering them into a particular narrative or point of view in order to fit with what she felt people in America needed to hear left me feeling empty and greatly dis-eased by the presumptions that are inherent in this type of positioning.

In a strange way it reminds me of my response to the book I, Safiya – a brilliant autobiography written by someone who does not have a voice for writing. The substance was so awe-inspiring, yet the narrative just let me down. And I felt disgusted with my judgemental self for not loving I, Safiya because it was so clearly an inspiration that this woman managed to tell her story and who was I to say that her voice didn’t meet my expectations? Yet I did. (Shrink, cringe). I passed my White, Western, educated, English hand over I, Safiya in dismay and I find myself quivering to do the same with this book (although for slightly different reasons).

Woe are the women of Congo – I can’t begin to imagine the pain and sorrow of any peoples who have to endure the type of suffering that A Thousand Sisters describes. But, how heroic that these women go on! How incredible that they dress in bright colours and dance and rejoice, that they choose life in the midst of this hardship and horror! I can’t help but feel that Shannon failed to grasp this miracle, and that she was disappointed that the women she encountered were not more tortured so that they could better meet with her expectations or perhaps soothe her troubled soul which was reeling from her own sorrows.

I have no doubt that Shannon’s intentions in writing this book were only pure and that it is my own inadequacies and post-colonial conscience speaking tongues of judgement here. I definitely recommend reading this book if only to learn more about what has occurred in the Congo. I followed many of the links that Shannon provided and found the information there heart-wrenching. I am certainly better educated about the Congo and will look out for more books about the plgi

Holy Woman, Sara Yocheved Rigler

Wow, what a read, what a book, what a woman. Boy do I feel small and worthless in comparison!!

A couple of things that this book has taught me:

1. Sara Yocheved Rigler is a very insightful woman and is definitely someone I will watch out for in the future. I have already ordered several of her other publications and have taken the time to listen to some of her talks on line (torahanytime.com) and to read some of her contribution to the AISH.com website. She has amazing insight and in my short exposure to her writing I feel as though I have learned a great many things.

2. Rebbetzin Kramer was one hell of a woman. Seriously. I don’t think I can imagine someone being so humble and giving and generous, living without so much and feeling so blessed all at the same time. It’s beyond me. On one level reading about this incredible woman (holocaust survivor, barren, poor) made me feel quite selfish and uncaring. I definitely don’t give enough – of myself, of my money, my time. Who does? From Rigler’s perspective, Rebbetzin Kramer did!

But, at the same time I learned that every small thing that you do to help someone else is priceless. Rebbetzin Kramer lived her life so wholly to make other people grow and feel worthy that she shone, despite her poverty and the various sorrows that her life brought to her. She did it with grace and faith, with commitment and love. No act of charity or kindness was beyond her or too trivial and she prided herself in knowing that she made even a slight difference in the lives of the people that she helped.

I am never going to be a Rebbetzin Kramer, not even close. I don’t see myself fostering a troop of mentally challenged children who need full time care. I don’t see myself going without even the most basic amenities (like electricity and running water) in order to provide for someone else. I can’t imagine that I would be satisfied with my husband travelling for months at a time to raise thousands of dollars to help those less fortunate (who could possibly be less fortunate?).

But, what I can do, is realise the value of perspective. Rebbetzin Kramer didn’t see herself as lacking or going without. She saw herself as blessed because she could help so many people in so many different ways. It is this that we should all strive to emulate – the ability to appreciate that even the most simply of things can transform another’s life.

So, take the time to smile at a stranger, to stop and wonder at all that we have even though there might be so much more that we want. This is the lesson that Rebbetzin Kramer brings us.

My Name is Ross, Ross Fitzgerald

Let me open this review by saying that I don’t follow Australian politics, I don’t generally like most Australian literature and I definitely don’t know much about Australian history. The reasons for all of these things are many and complex and this is not the forum to explore my gnawing distaste. But, understanding this does shed some light on why my choice in wanting to read this memoir is so unusual. I am not quite sure what appealed to me … whether it was just the picture on the cover (what an unusual looking gentleman!) or the subtitle: An Alcoholic’s Journey or perhaps the review that I read which indicated the enormous strength of character that was required for this man to write this book. Nonetheless, I was inspired to read this book and overjoyed when I discovered it at the library. Yay for the public library!!

I have not been disappointed. Fitzgerald’s writing is magnificent. I am dumbstruck by what must be his clear brilliance, his stamina and his ability to gain clarity through the darkest mist. Reading this book has been like entering into a complex maze and trying to understand something that simply does not exist. It is hard to explain. At times I feel as though Fitzgerald is writing with clarity and at other times I am confused and confounded by the lack of structure or perhaps his ability to maintain a thought and complete it. I can only think that this must be the nature of his beast.

While his life is clearly fascinating in and of itself – who he meets, what he does and accomplishes – what this book is really about is the significance of Fitzgerald’s journey through addiction. I was particularly taken by the fact that he credits his alcoholism as saving his life – if he hadn’t drunk he would have committed suicide, he says. There is a stark wonder in this revelation and it is a credit to him that he can see the value in the experience.

Fitzgerald’s life is heavy and the stories that he tells in this memoir are mostly depressing and equally weighed down with portent. His moments of joy and light are few and far between and many (if not most) of his central relationships are plagued with tragedy and/or despair. But, reading this book has, in and of itself, not been depressed. Fitzgerald is grateful that he is alive, thankful that he has had all these experiences and indebted, publicly, to so many people. One cannot help but be inspired.

Without doubt a fascinating individual who has made incredible contributions, not just to politics and academia in general, to the people around him too.

Lily Renee, Escape Artist

I have often wondered how one teaches young children about the events surrounding the Holocaust. There is so much brutality (bestiality as Denis Avey described it) inherent in that era that it seems too enormous to simplify for young ears. Trina Robbins has attempted to do just that, record the story of Lily Renee, a young artist, who survived the war by making it onto a kindertransport. Renee’s story is fascinating and so clearly depicted. She survives the war in England, subjected to harsh conditions in the house of a penpal. Eventually she flees and becomes a nanny and nursemaid in her efforts to earn enough money to eat and live. For a long while she has no news of her parents (although the way the story is told she doesn’t dwell on the possibilities of their fate).

Renee is clearly a survivor, a tenacious  young woman who isn’t afraid to stand up for herself, to make something of herself and to create some light in the darkest of places. At times I thought that this book could have made more of this fact as it is such a valuable lesson for all people to learn.

Eventually, Renee hears that her parents have made it to America. They send for her and she joins them there and goes on to become an artist, successful in her own right.

The book glosses over the tragedies of concentration camps and the horrors of life for Jews in Europe at this time. It is written in comic-strip style, illustrated with minimal text and vivid colour. It is straight forward enough for younger readers to appreciate, yet depth is added by the glossary at the book’s rear which provides more of an insight into the events of the Holocaust. The book is also enhanced by real photographs collected from Renee’s past which bring to life her story.

Senorita RioThe one enormously appealing aspect of this book is that it focuses on women. It is a book written by a woman, about a woman and all the women in her life. Renee finds comfort in the arms of a woman on the kindertransport, she is at the mercy of her penpal’s mother who is cruel and abusive, she finds shelter with a female school teacher and then a female nurse. She then goes on to illustrate comics about heroines who fight evil. In this way, Robbins has done a marvellous job of bringing a female face to the war and the Holocaust.

By giving women a voice in this dark time she has managed to write a book that is distinctive and well worth reading.

The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz, Denis Avey

I can’t say enough about this book. I don’t even know where to begin or how to find the works to properly convey the magnitude of what is written here and how it is expressed.

I will simply say that this is one of the most important books that I have ever encountered and been privileged enough to read. I have fortunately read widely about the Holocaust and the tragedies of WWII both from an historical and a personal perspective, but, I have never read anything like Avey’s account.

I have visited Yad Vashem and the Washington Holocaust Museum and the Jewish Museum in Sydney and each has been profound and moving and austere. I have read Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and countless others. And I have been stilled by the enormity of what they endured and how they managed to convey the intensity of the horror that they experienced and over which they triumphed. I have done courses about the Holocaust, read poems about the Holocaust, seen photographs depicting the trauma and the chaos and the inhumanity.

I find myself pondering what it is that Avey has done which so distinguishes this book?

I think that the only way to explain how moved I was by this text is to use Avey’s own words, taken from the point of the book where he is explaining how he swapped clothes with a Jewish prisoner and took his place in Auschwitz, giving up the security that his Prisoner of War status afforded him:

“I lay and listened to the wheezing and groaning of the others in the dark. Someone was rambling to himself, endlessly repeating the same locked-in phrases. He was not alone. There were the screams of people reliving by night the terrors of the day, a beating, a hanging, a selection. For others it would be the loss of a wife, a mother, a child on arrival. When they awoke, the nightmares continued around them. For them there was no escape.

When you give up, you don’t even feel pain any more. Every emotion or feeling is cut away. That’s how they were. That’s how it was.

I struggled to breathe again. It was stiflingly hot and there was the putrid smell of ripening bodies. Auschwitz III was like nothing else on earth; it was hell on earth. This is what I had to come to witness but it was a ghastly, terrifying experience.”

“It was days before I was able to reflect on those hours in Auschwitz III and appreciate the utter desperation of the place. It was the worst thing you could do to a man, I realised. Take everything away from him – his possessions, his pride, his self-esteem – and then kill him. Kill him, slowly. Man’s inhumanity to man doesn’t begin to describe it. It was far worse than the horror I faced in the desert war. Then I had an enemy before me and I did my duty. I was good at it and so I survived.”

I think that Avey’s text is so powerful because the impact that the bestiality that he witnessed had on him is so clear in the way he describes things:

“People talk about man’s inhumanity to man, but that wasn’t human or inhuman – it was bestial. Love and hate meant nothing there. It was indifference. I felt degraded by each mindless murder I witnessed and could do nothing about. I was living obscenity.”

This obscenity haunted Avey for over 60 years, tormenting him with nightmares, leaving him bereft of a language which could broach the horrors he had witnessed.

I loved this book. I think that Avey’s message will stay with me for ever: bad things only happen when righteous people do nothing.

Denis Avey, you are a great man and clearly deserving of a place in heaven.

Just Like Someone With A Mental Illness Only More So, Mark Vonnegut

I can’t quite imagine being the child of someone famous, having to live in the shadow of huge achievement – in any field – always dwarfed by the mania created by greatness, and somehow still trying to seek approval from this parent who is so clearly sublime. It is even harder to imagine doing all of this under the cloud of any sort of mental illness or instability – how to deal with one’s own personal shame and then the broader communal shame that would surely be aroused by media gossip and the interest of those hunters of the famous.

This is what Mark Vonnegut faced. He has dealt with it before in a memoir which I have never read and I have to confess, that while I have heard much about Vonnegut senior and his contribution to literature, I have never actually read his work. What intrigued me most about Mark Vonnegut’s latest account of his life, challenges and achievements, was the great heights to which he himself soared and the manner in which he almost seems to dismiss these magnificent achievements.

Here is a man who despite having been institutionalised for a psychotic break at a young age and then being forced to exist on medication to cope with his bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, still manages to write a book, graduate from Harvard Medical School, become a successful paediatric specialist, recover from addiction to alcoholism and still be stoic enough to revisit his past in a second memoir. And, I haven’t mentioned that he bought a house, got married, had children, got divorced and then remarried later in life … clearly the younger Vonnegut is a man of significant substance on his own right!!

While it is interesting to read Vonnegut’s interpretations of his mania and how he deals with it, this is not the best account of mental illness that I have read. I think that Dr Cameron West’s memoir, First Person Plural, presents a clearer picture of what it is like to suffer with any sort of mental incapacity. What Vonnegut does present on the fringes of his memoir are allusions to his family and their life as a unit. I think that it is this subtext that is most interesting. From Mark’s account there is definitely a predisposition to mania in his family and he repeatedly points to those members of his clan who ‘heard voices’ or drank to escape those voices.

The writer himself is seemingly a likeable guy and like him I did. I wasn’t totally gripped by this book but I definitely thought it worth reading and would go so far as to recommend it to others.

An excerpt can be read here.

Escaping the Straightjacket‘ – Vonnegut’s struggle to stay sane.

Mark Vonnegut’s Sane Response to Psychosis.’

Father and son speak about mental illness here.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

I don’t recall from where the recommendation to read this one arrived. I simply know that there were many appealing elements to this book which inspired my interest. Firstly, the title: the ordinary combined with the exotic, the implication of something exceptional blossoming in unusual circumstances, a slice of colour amid the mundane. Secondly, I was intrigued by the fact that the book’s context is fundamentalist Afghanistan under Taliban ruled yet it is written by an author whose name sounds incredibly Jewish and who purportedly spent years in Afghanistan researching this unlikely story.

So, I read the book. On one level I was not disappointed. It is a relatively interesting story and the backdrop is quite fascinating. However, I have read other books which were perhaps more intriguing and about the same topic – I am thinking of The Bookseller of Kabul which I found truly marvellous and also, perhaps of the works of Fatima Mernissi and Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. Nonetheless, there was some value in The Dressmaker of Khair Khana and the tenacity of the story’s protagonist is certainly admirable.

However, I found myself wanting to know more about the author and how she came to experience this story. I felt that the narrative evolved to be something that was more ‘sweet’ and even ‘cute’ rather than impressive or startling. The relationships between the individuals were too simple – perhaps this was a consequence of the constraints of the period, I am not sure. I was dissatisfied by the sweetness that I was left with, it didn’t seem appropriate at all. Interestingly, I was left with the same sense of disappointment upon reading I, Safiya.

I would be most interested to hear from others for whom this book is a first taste of life for women under the Taliban … perhaps my reading experience was destroyed by my knowledge?